Hasan di Tiro: Founder of Acehnese independence movement who helped end three decades of war

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The Independent Online

The grandson of an Indonesian national hero, Tengku Muhammad Hasan di Tiro founded a separatist movement that waged one of the world's longest-running civil wars, eventually seeing his home province of Aceh granted limited autonomy following the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami.

Di Tiro gave up a diplomatic and business career in the US to take up arms in the jungles of Aceh, founding the Free Aceh Movement, or Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (GAM), in 1976. Hunted by the Indonesian army, he fled to Malaysia and then to Sweden, where he lived in exile for nearly 30 years, continuing to control GAM from afar.

After a peace accord approved by Di Tiro and his followers was signed in 2005, he returned to his homeland, where he lived quietly in the provincial capital, Banda Aceh. The Indonesian government restored his citizenship the day before he died in hospital, aged 84, of multiple organ failure.

Descended from a line of influential Muslim scholars, above all his grandfather, who was killed in 1899 while spearheading Acehnese resistance to Dutch colonial forces, Di Tiro was born near the town of Pidie, on the province's east coast, in 1925. Cik di Tiro was also Aceh's last Sultan, which gave the family quasi-royal status.

Hasan di Tiro studied law, in the Javan city of Yogyakarta then in the US, where he graduated from Columbia University and received a doctorate in international law from the University of Plano in Texas. In New York in the early 1950s he worked at Indonesia's United Nations mission, and also embarked on a business career.

Back in Aceh, which lies at the north-western tip of Sumatra island, this was a turbulent time. Indonesia had recently won its independence war against the Dutch, but the devoutly Muslim province wanted to go its own way. After Jakarta reneged on an autonomy agreement, rebels from the Darul Islamic movement – who wanted Indonesia to become an Islamic republic – agitated for Acehnese independence.

The charismatic Di Tiro, still in New York, declared himself Darul Islam's "foreign minister". Indonesia promptly stripped him of his citizenship and he was imprisoned on Ellis Island for a few months as an illegal alien.

Tumultous events in Indonesia in the early 1960s, including civil war and anti-communist purges, culminated in Suharto becoming president. In 1962 there were more promises of autonomy for resource-rich Aceh from the Indonesian government, but these were again soon abandoned.

In 1974 Di Tiro returned to Aceh, leaving his American wife, Dora, and their son, Karim, in the US, and applied unsuccessfully for a pipeline contract for a new gasfield; Jakarta's control of the province's natural resources was one of the grievances of the Acehnese. Two years later, Di Tiro established GAM, which embarked on a separatist campaign, launching attacks on the new ExxonMobil LNG refinery among other targets.

Di Tiro, who denounced Indonesia as an illegitimate state and called for Aceh to regain the independence it lost when the Dutch invaded in 1873, was wounded in 1977 while fighting in the mountains. He fled the country, eventually taking up residence in Sweden, where he was granted citizenship and lived for three decades. He continued, though, to be revered as GAM's highest leader, and to work tirelessly for the Acehnese cause, including lobbying foreign dignitaries.

According to official estimates, 15,000 people died during the civil war between GAM and the military; reliable sources put the figure closer to 30,000. After failed peace talks, negotiations re-started in late 2004. Then came the Boxing Day earthquake off the coast of Aceh, which, together with the ensuing tsunami, killed nearly 170,000 people in the province alone.

The disaster brought the Indonesian government and the rebels back to the negotiating table, and in August 2005 a peace accord – approved by Di Tiro, although it granted autonomy rather than full independence – was signed. GAM was dissolved, and local parties, including one made up of former rebels, were able to fight elections for the first time. A former guerrilla commander, Irwandi Yusuf, is now the governor of Aceh.

Huge crowds greeted Di Tiro when he returned to his homeland in October 2008. But by then frail and elderly, having suffered two strokes in the 1990s, he was unable to deliver his own speech at the welcome rally. Last October he returned to the province again, this time to live. Barely six months later, he was admitted to hospital.

Tengku Muhammad Hasan di Tiro, Acehnese independence leader: born Pidie, Aceh 25 August 1925; married (marriage dissolved, one son); formed Free Aceh Movement 1976; died Aceh 3 June 2010.

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